Disbarment recommended for Atlanta City Councilman Lamar Willis

The court-appointed lawyer overseeing the State Bar of Georgia’s formal complaint against Lamar Willis has recommended that the Atlanta city councilman be disbarred for serious violations of legal rules.

Those violations include depositing thousands of dollars meant for a young client into his own personal account.

If approved by the Georgia Supreme Court, the recommendation would end Willis’ ability to practice law in Georgia and could throw into confusion his plans to seek re-election in November.

Willis declined to comment on Tuesday.

On Monday, he said in an exclusive interview Monday with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the problems arose partly because he was distracted by his own divorce proceedings. He said he did not steal the money but admitted to not dispersing the funds in a timely manner. He said the money, $30,000, has been returned.

Documents the AJC obtained show Willis did not respond to the formal complaint after he was personally served with it on Nov. 4. According to the report written by Joseph Szczecko, the lawyer who investigated for the bar, that meant the facts alleged and the violations charged were treated as if Willis admitted them.

“There are no mitigating factors in this case,” Szczecko wrote.

Willis did not get an extension of time to respond, and did not provide an explanation or evidence of mitigating circumstances, according to the report.

Several factors made the case even more serious, according to Szczecko’s eight-page report. Szczecko, a Decatur attorney, said aggravating factors included multiple offenses, obstruction of the disciplinary process by not answering the formal complaint, and “indifference to making restitution.”

“Disbarment is an appropriate discipline under the circumstances,” Szczecko wrote in the order, which was filed in Georgia’s Supreme Court on Jan. 7.

The state bar had accused Willis last year of ethics breaches in his law practice including depositing into his own bank account $30,000 that was meant for a young client.

The formal complaint stems from a personal injury lawsuit filed in 2009 on behalf of a minor identified in state bar documents as V.S.U. Willis represented the minor in the lawsuit, which he said was filed after a fence fell on and injured the young child.

The defendant settled the lawsuit for $30,000, and the settlement funds were supposed to be deposited in an attorney trust fund. But the state bar said Willis deposited the money into his personal or business account. Willis never disbursed the funds — to the young child’s conservator, to his co-counsel or to medical expenses for the minor — as directed by a court order.

The legal group, which licenses Georgia lawyers, accused Willis of fraud and deceit — charges Willis denied.

The formal complaint from the Georgia bar said Willis violated rules pertaining to reasonable diligence in representing his client, failed to safeguard property or promptly notify clients that they were entitled to property, and violated rules against “dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.”

Disbarment is the maximum penalty for each of the allegations. It is unclear if Willis will face criminal charges; none have been announced.

Willis has been a member of the state bar since 2006 and a member of the City Council since 2001. He has been involved in issues such as changes to the city’s contract with ParkAtlanta and driver safety among city employees. He has also pushed for a master planning group for downtown Atlanta.

But he has been dogged by ethics charges along the way.

In 2009, the Fulton County Superior Court announced a $25,000 fine against him for not registering his foundation as a charitable organization and not properly maintaining financial records for it. The foundation had distributed thousands of dollars in scholarship money to Atlanta high school students.

Two years later, Atlanta’s ethics board fined him $3,500 for accepting money for his foundation that was provided by companies and people doing business with the city.